There is a symposium underway on this blog about how intuition plays in philosophical methodology. Eric talked about Tim Williamson’s review of Joshua Alexander here, and Catarina discussed a 3AM interview with Herman Cappelen, author of Philosophy Without Intuitions here. Catarina and Eric seem to believe that contemporary “analytic” philosopher is perniciously and retrogressively dependent on intuition. Cappelen is on the other side: he thinks intuition doesn’t play a role at all. Personally, I have found him very persuasive. What follows is inspired by what I have read of his excellent book.
As we all know, intuition, or its close cousin—an ear for the idiom of everyday speech—played a large role in ordinary language philosophy. Austin, for example, observed that when you say “I know the horse is in the barn,” you must be implying that either there is some doubt about the matter, or that someone had been questioning it. You can’t say ‘know’ without implying this. (Imagine the response: “Nobody said it wasn’t!”) In the absence of doubt or denial, you would have said: “The horse is in the barn.” Ergo, ‘know’ cannot be used in the way philosophers use it, i.e., to signal epistemic security of belief.
In 1971, Kripke said that it was possible to be in pain without being in any particular neurological state. (At the time, pain was thought to be C-fibre stimulation, or CFS.) How did he know this? Not by consulting the latest neuropsychological literature about pain. The possibility is clear just from reflecting on how we self-ascribe pain: i.e., on the basis of a “feeling” and nothing else. Since it is logically simple in this way, it is compatible with any physical fact.
In talking about the possibility of pain not being identical with CFS, was Kripke “intuiting” in the manner of Austin? Was he pronouncing on neurophysiology on the strength merely of “what we all think”, or perhaps, “what a clear thinker must believe”? I find it a bit bizarre to imagine that he was. Who has ever offered such a strange argument?
Philosophers have often failed to challenge conventional wisdom, but what philosopher has ever cited conventional wisdom as a justification for philosophical dogma? Famously, as G. E. L. Owen argued in “Tithenai ta Phainomena,” Aristotle thought that there was a reasonable presumption that widely held opinion was somewhere close to being true. It was for this reason that he began his treatises with a survey of what prominent thinkers had said about an issue. But, contrary to what you might take from Owen’s discussion (or Martha Nussbaum’s in The Fragility of Goodness), Aristotle did not grant the opinions of non-experts evidential probity. On the contrary, he usually used these opinions to frame a dialectic that subverted conventional wisdom.
Coming back to contemporary philosophy, here is something that people sometimes forget about Kripke.
- First, the premise that I have reported—that it is possible for pain not to be C-fibre stimulation (CFS)—was, when he wrote, uncontroversial. Up until that time, materialist philosophers had universally conceded that pain was in fact CFS, but only contingently so. And they conceded this not on grounds of intuition or anything of that sort, but on the basis of a well-established theory of possibility that has its roots in the great rationalist thinkers of the seventeenth century.
- Second, Kripke’s sensational contribution (later solidified by David Chalmers’ somewhat different argument re psychophysical determination) was to argue that identity was a necessary relation (in other words, that x is identical with y only if x is necessarily x is identical with y). This led to the surprising conclusion that if pain is possibly not identical with CFS, pain is not in fact identical with CFS.
This is the point when all the fuss began. Up until then, everybody had insisted that pain was only contingently CFS. Now when they were confronted by Kripke’s (and Richard Cartwright’s) argument that identity is always necessary identity, and the straightforward implication that pain is not identical with CFS. Faced with this seemingly unpleasant conclusion, they began to assert that pain was necessarily CFS, and that only untutored intuition would have convinced anybody otherwise.
On the face of it, this is an odd development. The Kripke/Chalmers argument is purely a priori. And it is well within the domain of traditional philosophy. It is about possibility and determination, not about neurophysiology. It would be appalling if intuition were taken to have consequences for neurophysiology, but in fact it was never claimed to have such consequences. Philosophy does not confront neurophysiology; Kripke/Chalmers did not either, and certainly not on the grounds of intuition. As I have argued, neurophysiology should not be taken as telling us about identity.
In my view, we should keep the good old intuition that the relationship between pain and CFS is contingent, accept the consequence that pain and CFS are not identical, and understand that materialism doesn’t demand identity. The causal nexus of pain can be routed through CFS in this world, and through other substrates in other worlds. Why would anybody deny this?
To bring things back to intuition, Kripke never appealed to an intuition to establish that pain can possibly be non-identical with CFS. It would be interesting to revisit his argument about identity being a necessary relation to evaluate whether it relies on intuition. (As I recall, it pivots around the misleading suggestions generated by formalizing identity as x=y—a relation between potentially two things— instead of thinking of it always as x=x—everything's relation to itself.)
I would be very interested to know if somebody can produce a clean example of intuition operating in philosophy in the way that Austin’s ordinary language analysis worked, or claimed to work. Has philosophy ever claimed to have a methodology that is capable of uncovering objective facts, where those facts are not in the first place concerned with possibility and necessity?